My friend Deborah Norman has been in the antiques business for 25 years, and her Grand and Water Antiques in Stonington Borough is unfailingly an attractive and evolving curiosity shop showcasing fine art and furniture, polished oddities and silver heirlooms and finds of the rather rare kind:
That commemorative wooden spear from a 1913 expedition to Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands;
That 3,500-year-old ceramic vessel excavated at Rayy, Iran, in the 1930s by members of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania;
That Sterling trophy with “Best Bitch” engraved on it (she’s had several and they sell quickly, usually to women);
That cane made from shark vertebrae;
That cane with a Stanhope, a novelty optical souvenir from the 1800s that bore miniscule hidden images, in this case one of a naked woman.
And the crown jewel: That circa 1690 German marquetry table cabinet, or cabinet of curiosities, made of sycamore, fruitwood, oak, pine and walnut, with eight drawers lined with silk and trimmed with hand-tooled leather, and bearing the most intricate and delicately executed pieces of veneer depicting tableaux of trees of life, hunters, birds, animals, moons, skylines, clouds and crosses.
I like to stop into her corner shop — at Grand and Water streets — from time to time to catch up and hear her stories, and she tells most engaging stories. During a recent visit she showed me a trove of sketch books that captivated both her and me. They belonged to Gladys Edgerly Bates, a renowned sculptor who lived in Mystic, who was a founder of what was then the Mystic Art Association, and who died in 2003 at age 107.
The sketch books came from a house in Noank where Bates lived at the end of her life, and they document the fine hand of a young art student on a tour of Europe and also Cuba in the early decades of the last century. Though she made her name as a sculptor, mostly in figure-carving, and her work is included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, she was deft, as these sketch books attest, with watercolor, pencil and pen and ink.
For an antiques shop owner who is, after all, in business, possession of these books, given the prominence of the artist here, poses a pleasant dilemma: She also finds herself the steward of archival treasure with perhaps negligible commercial value. What to do with it?
Gladys Edgerly Bates’ papers were donated to the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University in 1965, with additional materials given in 1997. Bates was approached by Syracuse in the mid-1960s as part of the university’s initial drive to create a manuscripts division. She was chosen as a prominent figure in an area of art in which the university was interested in collecting. Apparently there was no previous connection between Bates and Syracuse.
“Sometimes you do need to sit with it for a bit, and slowly these things reveal themselves as to where they should go,” Norman told me. For now, they are safe under her care.
Three years ago, she returned from an auction in New York with a desk of drawers — the top two folded down — that had a tall bookcase on top. “No one wanted this desk,” she said. “It was from the 1790s, Georgian, and ridiculously cheap. It was big and dark and it did cover a lot of real estate.”
In cleaning out the piece, she came across something that she said broke her heart.
“Clearly this is where this woman who owned it did her correspondence,” she said. “I started exploring and found old stamps, tacks, that sort of stuff. I was looking for secret drawers and way in the back, all crumpled up, I found a letter. I opened it and read it. It was an apology, written to her son. This must have been a very wealthy family, busy with their lives, and apparently he was neglected. She was making this apology in an aristocratic, but heartfelt way. She was saying she wasn’t there for him, that she did not do well by him. But she never mailed it. That broke my heart even more.”
The envelope was addressed to the son. Norman did her best to flatten it out under a stack of books and then stamped and mailed it. She did not write a return address.
“When you truly give something like this, you have to remain anonymous,” she said. “You just have to let it go.”
And there was the Friday night of the annual borough holiday stroll, when she hastily put out a few more items in the shop, including those from boxes that recently came from a house in Waterford.
An elderly brother and sister, who’d never been in her shop before, came in with a group of people. They saw a couple of silhouettes, framed, that of a boy and girl maybe six or seven years old. They were stunned. They were looking at themselves.
“They were so happy, so touched,” she said. “What are the odds of that happening? I never saw them again. They were so sweet. I just gave them to them.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.